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Legacy of first Classic grows

Lindy Ruff remembers the skepticism surrounding the first Winter Classic. Folks weren't openly mocking Buffalo's outdoor game, but there sure were some who dismissed the New Year's Day 2008 event as an exhibition rather than a meaningful outing.

It'd be hard to find anyone who says that about the Classic anymore. While the Sabres are set to host the Boston Bruins tonight in HSBC Arena, nearly all of the NHL's attention will be in Pittsburgh with the Penguins and Washington Capitals scheduled to play outside at 8 p.m. in Heinz Field.

"Where it was skeptical when we played it to how big it's become, I think it's awesome," Ruff said Friday.

The Sabres' coach gushed about the game in Ralph Wilson Stadium three years ago, and he continues to talk glowingly about the experience and the concept.

"It's done a lot for the league," he said. "The players love playing in it. We've had different atmospheres from the snow we had to how cold it was in Chicago [in 2009] to just bringing the game back to its roots. I think if the NFL ever got to a point where it was all indoor stadiums, they would lose something. I think hockey going back outside has just brought back a big love for the game and its natural state."

This year's Classic -- the fourth following appearances in Buffalo, Chicago and Boston -- has received the most attention. Most notably, HBO Sports produced a four-part "2 4/7 " series chronicling the Pens and Caps as they headed toward the game.

"It's become the premier event," Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller said. "I still think that's the important part. People react to some of these big sporting events, to the hype and want the inside access, and I think the NHL has gone above and beyond with '2 4/7 ' and the amount of behind-the-scenes stuff that they do. I think they're doing the right kind of hype for it, so it's good to see the game get that kind of respect."

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The Sabres-Bruins matchup, originally scheduled for 5 p.m., has been changed to 7 p.m. and will begin following an on-ice ceremony for Alexander Mogilny and the late Jim Kelley. The duo will be inducted into the Sabres Hall of Fame, an honor announced in November.

Mogilny spent the first six of his 16 NHL seasons in Buffalo (1989 to '95), recording 211 goals and 444 points in 381 games. No season was more magical than 1992-93, when he set a Sabres record with 76 goals while skating alongside center Pat LaFontaine.

Kelley covered the NHL from 1979 until his death Nov. 30, with 21 of those years spent covering the Sabres for The Buffalo News. Kelley earned Hockey Hall of Fame honors by winning the Elmer Ferguson Award in 2004, but he was really looking forward to his unexpected induction into the Sabres' Hall before succumbing to pancreatic cancer.

"I want to thank the people in that building for putting their faith in me," Kelley said upon learning of his honor, "and I want to be able to go in and thank my family for the sacrifices they made."

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The left wing experiment for rookie Luke Adam lasted just one day. The center skated on the wing with Tim Connolly and right wing Thomas Vanek on Thursday, but he was back in the middle during Friday's practice in Northtown Center in Amherst.

"Luke's going to stay at center," Ruff said. "I think he needs to concentrate on playing and growing at his position, which is center ice."

Adam skated between left wing Tyler Ennis and right wing Cody McCormick. Connolly was flanked by Vanek on the left and Jason Pominville on the right. Jochen Hecht was in the middle of left wing Rob Niedermayer and right wing Drew Stafford, while Paul Gaustad centered for left wing Nathan Gerbe and right wing Mike Grier.

They will try to score against Bruins backup goaltender Tuukka Rask, who is playing in place of starter Tim Thomas. The Sabres beat Rask, 3-2, on Dec. 15.

e-mail: jvogl@buffnews.com

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